Minimum wage challenge nets insights for lawmakers

The first wave of what activists are calling the "minimum wage challenge" is over, and the results are in. Seventeen or 18 politicians across the state agreed to partake in the challenge, which was to live on $17 a day for five days — roughly what someone making $8.05 an hour (minimum wage in Florida) would have to spend after paying rent and other bills.

Some politicians did not make it out alive. (Or gave up. Whatever.)

Reporters tried to nail down an exact number of participants who started — and how many succeeded — during a Tuesday evening conference call, but a spokeswoman for the Service Employees International Union, which organized and publicized the challenge, wouldn't give an exact number.

But a number of lawmakers who went through the challenge were on the call, and they said living on $17 bucks a day was pretty tough.

Among Tampa Bay area lawmakers who took the challenge was State Rep. Dwight Dudley, a recent CL Best of the Bay winner who represents St. Pete. From what we know of Dudley, he's actually kind of a thrifty guy to begin with (at least that was the impression we got when we interviewed him for Ask the Locals).

He stuck with “alhonana” sandwiches (almond butter, honey and banana on whole wheat bread) for the duration, and didn't go to any restaurants. Easy as pie.

It was getting around town, namely from where he lives north of downtown St. Pete up to the Pinellas County Justice Center on 49th St. past Ulmerton — he's a defense attorney — that was a real pain in the ass.

There was a glitch in the route schedule, and he wound up with a schedule that wasn't current.

“I basically missed the bus the first day and had to get a ride — beg a ride — to go to court,” he said. “That was a little nerve-wracking and disconcerting.”

Plus, what's basically a 20-minute drive wound up taking more than an hour via bus, plus he had to walk a few blocks from where the bus dropped him off.

“But I got to talk to a bunch of working people,” he said. “And it was great to be able to talk to them. They obviously were wondering what a guy wearing a suit was doing riding a bus, and I told them what I was doing.”

Some who participated gleaned insight into the societal costs of having so many working people living in poverty — i.e., taxpayer money is covering on the back end what decent wages could have covered (or prevented at less cost) on the front end.

“When I went to buy groceries, I wanted to buy vegetables and I wanted to make salads and have fruit, and I found that packaged boxes of macaroni and cheese were a fourth [of] the cost of the vegetables," said State Rep. Geraldine Thompson (D—Orlando). "So people who make minimum wage have a choice of having a healthy diet or a low-cost one that would fit in the budget.”

Hence nutritional deficiencies, weight gain and the health problems that stem from such dietary choices.

“So we have obesity, we have heart disease, we have visits to the emergency room because people simply don't have the money to buy their own food to allow them to maintain their health.”

Then there are the less tangible mental-health aspects of living on such a thin line, Thompson said.

“We all need recreation and we need an opportunity to relax and to socialize in communities. And if we don't have that, I think that's why we have some of the domestic violence and some of the dysfunction within families, because people don't have the money."

There's also the reality of not being able to afford a car, and the hazards of being a pedestrian on Florida's oft-perilous roadways.

“Riding a bike is one thing. I like riding a bike,” Dudley said. “But when you're forced to ride a bike, and you're in a state where we have the highest rate of fatalities for pedestrians and bicyclists, it certainly gives one pause.”

The lawmakers who participated weren't free of criticism. On the conservative Sunshine State News blog, contributor Leslie Wimes, who heads the Democratic African American Women Caucus, called the challenge “lazy,” “offensive” and “stupid” and likened the generally-financially-well-off lawmakers' adoption the minimum wage lifestyle to a “Halloween costume.”

Those who underwent the challenge admitted their temporary plight is nothing like that of the workers who are stuck in low-wage jobs, and that the point here is to help strengthen the call for a bump in the minimum wage.

“My doing what I did was only a facsimile and not the real thing,” Dudley said. “I know folks who have to do it day in and day out, and they don't see any improvement or changes. Pretty tough...We've got to do better for working people.”

South Florida State Sen. Dwight Bullard said while everyone who took part was a Democrat this time around, he hopes that future rounds of the challenge will include Republicans.

“The reason, more so than just the partisan nature of it, is the fact that some of these folks that are struggling every day live in some very, very rural and red areas," Bullard said. "So it's important for [Republicans] to understand they're alienating some of [their] constituents. It was my hope that there'd be more Republicans coming up to the plate for the challenge.”

The next round of the challenge is expected to start next week.

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